Book review: The Lark Ascending, by Richard King

Normally, books which swerve between diverse topics delight and intrigue me. Although there is much to enjoy, and much to learn from The Lark Ascending, it often seems to me to be disparate essays shoehorned together, with ideas being shuttlecocked around.

Richard King

It is subtitled “The Music Of The British Landscape”. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ most famous piece of music – which I have always found rather anodyne – is the starting point. Thereafter we get a gallimaufry of things, including Brian Eno, Kate Bush, Donovan, the Soil Association, the Milk Marketing Board, Dylan Thomas, Paul McCartney, Greenham Common, the trespass on Kinder Scout, Morris Dancing, a history of The Ramblers (formerly The Ramblers’ Association), British fascism, 90s rave culture and quite a lot more. In and of themselves a lot of these are interesting reading. Whether they hang together as a book is somewhat more problematic. It is, in the whole, a jumble, though the parts are often well done.

Vaughan Williams’ piece regularly tops the Classic FM list of favourite pieces of music. No doubt that is why it was chosen as a title, though it features fleetingly within the text (a coda piece involving a lark seen while walking hardly qualifies as anything other than an expedient closure). Nothing is devoted to other classical composers of the 20th century who had a relationship to the landscape. There is no mention of, say, Michael Tippett’s Four Songs From The British Isles or Ethel Smyth’s On The Cliffs Of Cornwall or even much at all about Benjamin Britten.

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It is also a very English book. There might be room for Mull Of Kintyre but not for Peter Maxwell Davies’ An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise or Farewell To Stromness. Its fixation on Englishness is perhaps the book’s most important insight. In terms of writing and thinking and singing about nature there is a strange collusion between conservation, conservatism, radicalism, romanticism, nostalgia and counter-culture hippies.

Various utopian schemes are projected on to the landscape, and while some are depicted as simply naïve and bewilderingly innocent, others are unthinkingly malicious. Take, for example, the words of Henry Williamson, of Tarka The Otter fame, when, having returned from the Nuremberg Rally, he extolled how the Hitler Youth had inspired him to contemplate a movement to shift “the former pallid leer of hopeless slum youth, transformed into the suntan, the clear eye, the broad and easy rhythm of the poised young human being”. Tomorrow belongs to me indeed.

So too the very curious figure of Rolf Gardiner, friend of the Tory MP Viscount Lymington (who wanted to be made “Minister for Manure”) and a devotee of Rudolf Steiner’s ideas about crop rotation. In his Springhead Ring, tilling the fields was part of “sacramental ideas of worship and offering, and opposed to the etiolation of modern life by the decay of mystery and reverence”. He was also a keen observer of the Nazi “blood and soil” ideology. For him folk songs were part of the synthesis between agriculture, identity and his idea of progress. We tend now to think of folk as being “folkish”; something quaint and untroubling, or at best conjuring up such anthems as Hamish Henderson’s Freedom Come All Ye. But there was a time, particularly in England, when it was much more Volk than folk.

There are some genuinely intriguing interventions. King writes of artists whose “popularity showed a substantial audience for artistic risk and experimentation”, albeit in the context of Kate Bush using a “pitch-controlled keyboard, samples and computer generated sounds”, rather than Pierre Boulez or Steve Reich. It’s also slightly off-key that in a book that advertises itself as being about music and landscape, there is no mention of Bush’s most famous song, Wuthering Heights, which does align itself with Emily Brontë’s novel in which the heaths on which Heathcliff stalks are, to all intents and purposes, a character in their own right. But re-asserting the innovation of these musicians is welcome. It is also mildly hilarious in terms of how McCartney changed from the eco-pagan of the Ram album to the pseudo-laird in Wings.

If this book has one true virtue, it is in insisting that if you do want a retreat to the country, you had better be prepared to put in some hard graft. The idyll is not idyllic, the pastoral is not just flutes and capering.

This book fascinates in terms of how such divergent groups engage with landscape, with tradition and with re-inventing tradition. The links between “getting away from it all”, the folk song and a vaguely toxic culture of nationalism and the “health” of the nation are handled well. But too often it merely rattles between topics. There is no actual argument, only incidents that do not cohere, and rather too much about LSD and psilocybin. The underrated Scottish poet John Leyden talked of the skylark which “warbles in a tone less shrill”. It was that lark, not the ethereal, fantastical version from Vaughan Williams, with which I was left. - Stuart Kelly

The Lark Ascending, by Richard King, Faber & Faber, £12.99